June 18, 2019

Sail the Aloha State with Norwegian

Find paradise in Hawaii aboard the Pride of America

By Kathryn E. Worrall

Vacations Magazine: Sail the Aloha State with Norwegian
Danny Lehman/Norwegian Cruise Line
In Hawaiian mythology, an assortment of gods and goddesses formed the land now known as the Aloha State. Fiery Pele left a smattering of volcanoes in her wake. Namaka ruled the sea. Beautiful Laka created the hula dance, Kane breathed life into the first humans and Poliahu sprinkled snow atop Maunakea.

Today, across the islands, monuments, volcanoes, flora -- seemingly everything has a story tied to these legends. And everywhere you go, one Hawaiian word is repeated over and over -- ohana, meaning "family."

Mark Twain once declared Hawaii "the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean." And with a cruise, you're able to sample just about all of them.

Last October, I embarked on my first ocean cruise, a seven-night sailing aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America. The ship transports you around the islands, packing in plenty of time in four ports to give passengers the full Hawaii experience. You see Pele's warpath of volcanoes. You swim in Namaka's warm waters and are entranced by Laka's dancers. You experience the ohana way of life.

Read on to learn about my trip to paradise with my friend Katie. Many of our daily explorations are featured on Norwegian shore excursions, or you can use your free time to copy our outings yourself. Norwegian Cruise Line offers these weeklong Hawaiian itineraries through April 2022, priced from $1,299.

Oahu
Upon arriving in Honolulu, Katie and I checked into the Surfjack Hotel and Swim Club, a trendy old-school Hawaiian lodge in the center of Waikiki. Surfboards painted with characters of legendary surfers don the walls of the on-site eatery, Mahina & Sun's, one of famed chef Ed Kenney's multiple Honolulu locales. Renting a pair of the Surfjack's complimentary, vintage-inspired bikes, we ventured to the water.

Waikiki Beach is beautiful. The sand is soft and the ocean is translucent and calm, perfect for wading a ways out into the water. Floating in the Pacific and facing the land, you can see the volcanic cone Diamond Head and numerous high-rise buildings, a prime portrait of Hawaii's most populated isle.

Because of Waikiki's charms, warm water and ideal location, it is crowded. Throngs of tourists lounge on the sand, paddle out on surfboards and take to the sky for parasailing. It's by no means a place to doze to the sound of crashing waves, but its grandeur is a must-see and when you're fighting jet lag, the lively scene can be stimulating.

We started the culinary aspect of our trip on a high note with dinner at Alan Wong's Honolulu, a James Beard Award-winning institution frequented by the likes of Honolulu native and former President Barack Obama. It's on the third floor of an unassuming office building and lacks ocean or buzzing street views, but that doesn't matter because you are here for the food.

Katie and I let the restaurant's experts take over, opting for the classic five-course tasting menu. We began with a grilled foie gras, kalua pig and mozzarella sandwich atop a martini glass of chilled tomato soup, cheekily labeled "Soup and Sandwich." We had ginger-crusted red snapper, lobster lasagna and twice-cooked short ribs. We ended with decadent "crunch bars," a concoction of macadamia nuts, milk chocolate and bittersweet chocolate mousse.

Alan Wong's is a true treat where I had one of the best meals of my life, but our one mistake? Don't go on the first evening after you've flown into Honolulu. Despite the top-notch fare, by the third course we were fighting the urge to nod off, thanks to the time difference.

By the next morning, we had learned our lesson of doing too much, too soon, and skipped plans to hike Diamond Head and wander around Chinatown. Instead, we sunbathed by the Surfjack pool, cleverly marked with a looping "Wish You Were Here!" on its floor.

Before long, it was time to board the 2,186-passenger Pride of America, the only cruise ship that sails year-round, weeklong itineraries in Hawaii from Honolulu. Ten-day versions that add a Waikiki hotel stay and guided Oahu sightseeing also are offered.

The ship, which received an extensive stem-to-stern renovation in 2016, has a top-deck pool, well-outfitted gym and spa, Broadway-style theater and shops. Onboard restaurants provide an array of flavors as you sail around the Aloha State: For starters, how about burgers at the 1950s-inspired Cadillac Diner, Italian dishes at La Cucina, Asian fare at East Meets West, slow-roasted meats at the Brazilian-style Moderno Churrascaria or prime cuts at Norwegian's classic Cagney's Steakhouse?

Drinking venues range from the Ocean Drive Bar overlooking the pool to the Napa Wine Bar and rose-hued Pink's Champagne Bar. As the ship sailed toward our first stop, Katie and I toasted our trip at the aft Aloha Lanai Bar and watched Honolulu fade into the distance.

Maui
The second-largest Hawaiian isle, Maui consists of two volcanoes separated by an expansive basin, earning it the moniker Valley Isle. It once was funded by whaling and sugar cane production, but today tourism is its biggest contributor. We began with tours of two vendors in the rural upcountry: Hawaii Sea Spirits Organic Farm and Distillery, which produces Ocean Vodka, and Maui Gold Pineapple Co.

Ocean Vodka, packaged in a blue, globe-shaped bottle, is made from on-site sugar cane and specialty mineral water. After a tour of the farm and facility, we sampled the spirit and its sister rum.

Maui Gold is one of the last remaining pineapple operations in Hawaii. Savoring our pineapple-infused water, we gleaned tips and tricks for selecting a prime pineapple (smaller equals sweeter, and a flattened rind means it's riper). We received gifts of the fruit and later asked the ship's chef to slice them for to-go snacks on beach days.

For lunch, we dined at Mama's Fish House in Paia. Established in 1973, the oceanfront spot features fresh fish brought in daily by local fishermen, whose names often are included alongside menu items. We drank mai tais and munched on Mama's signature mahimahi stuffed with lobster and crab while watching palm trees wave in the wind and blue water lap at the shore.

We trekked to the tropical Iao Valley State Monument to work off our lunch. Local children splashed and swam in a creek nearby as we walked up to an overlook for views of the 1,200-foot Iao Needle and the island below us. The green rock served as a lookout point in the 1790 battle between Kamehameha I and the Maui army.

The next day, after slathering on sunscreen, we left for Norwegian's "Molokini Zodiac Turtle Snorkel" excursion. The crescent-shaped Molokini crater is just a few miles off Maui's coast, and within the marine sanctuary lucky snorkelers track octopuses, manta rays and the occasional reef shark. During whale season, humpbacks are abundant in the surrounding waters. After discovering puffer fish and a few eels, we jetted to Turtle Town, popular for green sea turtles. Sure enough, we soon were swimming behind 5-foot-long honu. The 4 1/2-hour excursion is available for $179 per person and includes lunch.

For our final free afternoon in Maui, we went to Poolenalena Beach Park in Kihei. Pick up tacos to go at the nearby Horhitos Taqueria food truck (opt for the "bahi mahi" with mango salsa or the chicken with chipotle mayo). Though it's near Maui's main resorts, the beach is relatively quiet with gentle, swimmable waves, an absence of rocks or spiky sea urchins and sand so soft you can forgo a beach towel.

The Big Island
Hawaii's eponymous isle and its largest, the Big Island is made up of five volcanoes, including the world's most active, Kilauea. While last summer's volcanic eruptions made national news, the isle is open for tourists, and at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (a Norwegian Cruise Line shore excursion), guests safely can see flowing lava and eruptions.

The Big Island is lightly populated, which has led to the establishment of astronomy centers and a strong agricultural economy. Hilo, the Hawaii County seat and one of the Pride's port calls, is at sea level, so flooding and tsunamis can be threats. A row of banyan trees -- many planted by famous visitors like Babe Ruth and Amelia Earhart -- help protect the city.

The island's volcanic heritage reveals itself at black-sand beaches like Richardson's Ocean Park, just a short distance from Hilo. Bring water-friendly shoes for walks amid the lava rocks (keep an eye out for scurrying black crabs) and pack a pair of goggles to swim alongside sea turtles. Several wading pools cater to swimmers of all ages, and daredevils cliff jump into the crystal-clear water.

The Pride of America schedules stops on the other side of the Big Island in Kailua-Kona, a resort area noted for its coffee farms. However, on our early October trip, Hurricane Walaka skirted around Hawaii. It didn't cause substantial damage but created swells too large for us to safely dock. So we had an unexpected, lazy day at sea. We relaxed by the pool, tanning and reading, and had afternoon massages at the Mandara Spa, capping off our treatments in heated lounge chairs.

Kauai
Due to the itinerary change, the Pride spent the late afternoon cruising along Kauai's Napali Coast. It's a breathtaking "pinch me" moment -- sharp cliffs etched with valleys and canyons rise up from the ocean. On the ship's 15th deck, we toasted the views with Champagne and gazed into an opening of the massive Waimea Canyon, nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. As the fading sun cast Napali in a warm light, we decided to sign up for a helicopter tour of the canyon and coast (more on that later).

We scheduled a see-it-all trip for the following day. You likely would recognize parts of Kauai -- movies ranging from "Avatar" to "Tropic Thunder" to Elvis Presley's "Blue Hawaii" have been filmed here. Tan Jeeps adorned with "Jurassic Park" logos are used for romps around the franchise's shooting locations.

This, in my opinion, is the most beautiful island of the lot. It's so lush, green and varied, from coastal cliffs to remote beaches. The first Polynesians believed to reach the Hawaiian Islands traveled up Kauai's Wailua River, and guests today can rent kayaks and traverse the same waterway or splash around in the river's namesake double-tiered falls.

After perking up at Kauai Coffee (the largest farm of its kind in the U.S., with some 4 million trees), we sipped mai tais, dined on pulled pork and poi (a purple fermented taro root paste that's a staple in native Hawaiian cuisine) and witnessed a performance at Luau Kalamaku. Utilizing elements of local lore, the show weaves a dramatic tale of family separation and reconciliation. Expect fire dancers, grunting warriors and elaborate costumes.

For our second Kauai day, Katie and I embarked on Norwegian's "Mokihana Helicopter" excursion. We lifted off for a 50-minute tour over cattle farms, surf towns and even our cruise ship. We zigzagged through the red and green Waimea Canyon, a 14-mile expanse that at parts is 3,600 feet deep, and lingered by waterfall after waterfall -- including thundering Manawaiopuna Falls, the cascade from the helicopter landing scene in "Jurassic Park."

We traced the Napali Coast, taking in the spectacle from above. On this bright morning, the usually cloudy Mount Waialeale, one of the world's wettest points, was easily visible. It's recommended to book this $319 excursion in advance, and participants should wear dark clothing with long sleeves and pants to avoid reflections in the windows and photos.

Later we rented a Jeep and headed for a hidden stretch of sand called Gillin's. It took some time (and getting lost) to find but it was worth the effort: With fewer than 10 people in sight, we set up our cooler and chairs on the expansive, undeveloped beach. Waves here are rough in the afternoon, but you can walk to an adjacent beach, Kawailoa Bay, for an easier swim. Along the way, you might even catch an endangered monk seal lazing on the shore.

Oahu
Back where it all began, we disembarked the Pride of America and checked into The Royal Hawaiian. After picking up banana nut bread for the road, we took off in a rented convertible for the North Shore, arguably Hawaii's top spot for surfing lessons or simply observing the pros from the sand.

In Haleiwa we grabbed caffeine at Coffee Gallery (indulge with the Cappuccino Freeze, a combo of espresso, vanilla ice cream and coffee flavoring) and perused the North Shore Marketplace, picking up new swimsuits and souvenirs. From Haleiwa you can access an assortment of beaches, each beloved for a different reason.

There's Turtle Beach, noted for its namesake creatures, and Waimea Bay, a cliff-jumping site. Shark's Cove is famed for its snorkeling (not for an abundance of sharks), and outfitters here provide rental gear. Ehukai Beach is home to surfing's renowned Banzai Pipeline, and Sunset Beach is an excellent end-of-day locale.

We hopped from one sandy stretch to another, snacking on pineapple and trying to outrun the looming rain (it seems the Hawaiian gods frowned upon our decision to rent a convertible). Finally giving in to the inevitable showers, we took shelter at Fumi's, a North Shore shrimp shack. After eating our fill of spicy garlic shrimp with rice, pineapple and corn, we circled back to The Royal Hawaiian.

The hotel is awash in pink -- walls, umbrellas, even the bathrobes -- and as we watched the sun set over Waikiki Beach from our balcony, even the sky transformed into hues of coral, a perfect final moment.

Among Hawaii's nicknames is the Rainbow State, and perhaps my favorite myth is that of the god Lono. As the story goes, when Lono was ready to leave the heavens and descend to Earth, he would ride down on a rainbow and then head out surfing. Surely a deity only would come to our world for such a paradise as Hawaii. And, of course, he would have to go surfing.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Spring 2019. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.


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